Making a difference on English Avenue

The Friends of English Avenue, Inc. (FEA) was established in response to the tragic death of 92-year-old English Avenue resident, Kathryn Johnston. In 2006, she was shot and killed in her own home in a botched drug raid.

Johnston’s death had the unforeseen effect of bringing attention to the long-ignored neighborhood of English Avenue, which lies in the shadows of Atlanta’s most iconic landmarks, is plagued by generational poverty and crime and is in walking distance of the Georgia Dome, World Congress Center and Coca-Cola.

Atlanta businessman John Gordon saw an opportunity to fill Johnston’s life with lasting meaning. He teamed up with the Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of the Lindsay Street Baptist Church, to provide resources and hope to a community in desperate economic and social straits..

Today, the neighborhood is comprised of elderly residents and working-class families, living next door to drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs. The conditions are bleak, although improving. More than 43 percent of the homes are vacant; the neighborhood has the highest rate of violent crime in the city; the largest heroin market in the southeast; the highest incidence of HIV per capita in the nation and 67 percent of residents living in poverty. Every social ill imaginable exists in this 60 square-block area.

Green-space development, crime reduction, beautification and resident empowerment have been FEA’s focus since inception. We have led cleanups; sponsored a teen summer work initiative; developed two urban farms; renovated a vacant house where an Atlanta police officer and her family live rent-free; and conducted annual crime prevention meetings. We worked for nine years building bridges and developing relationships with residents and leaders. We believe we’ve made a difference.

Before he started managing at our Urban Farm in 2012, Wayne Wricketts had an admitted crack addiction. Simply by providing him a chance at meaningful employment, he rediscovered himself and developed a will to change. His transformation inspires us. The Urban Farms provide more than 5,000 pounds of organic produce to residents who live in a federally designated food desert, enhance aesthetics and instill pride.

Our Teen Summer Clean-Up Program employs local youth to pick up trash and overgrowth. According to the Department of Solid Waste, our cleanups have removed more than 126 tons of debris from the community — an illegal dumping ground for many.

Thanks to the combined efforts of many, including the Atlanta Police Department and the U.S. Attorney, crime has declined 45 percent in the past two years. There is a new green space in the center of the neighborhood. Things appear on the upswing.

Still, so much remains to be done. Random gunfire is ever-present. Just last week, a home burned to the ground, leaving two dead in what “the street” describes as drug-related retaliation.

Many of the problems in English Avenue represent low-hanging fruit. A little attention can create significant ripple effects. Other challenges like poverty, unemployment and illiteracy are too difficult for any one entity to conquer, which is why we have worked to collaborate with any and all who are willing. Organizations like the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority, English Avenue Neighborhood Organization, English Avenue CDC, Lindsay Street Baptist Church and its food co-op ministry, Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, Atlanta Police Foundation, Chick-fil-A Foundation and the Northside United Methodist Church are valued partners.

In the last couple of years, a host of other organizations, public and private, have indicated their intentions to make a difference on the Westside. We welcome and encourage them to engage in true and honest collaboration to have the most impact possible.

As we reflect on the tragedy that brought us to serve in English Avenue, we are gratified knowing Johnston’s death ultimately resulted in her community being a safer, greener, healthier and cleaner place to live for its 3,300 residents While the death of Johnston brought us here, the relationships with residents and the impact our initiatives have had on their lives, keep us here.

Suzanne L. Baker is executive director of The Friends of English Avenue.

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